House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) dramatic defeat in Tuesday’s GOP primary has spawned a plethora of media narratives arguing the race symbolizes the Tea Party’s momentum is walloping the heart of the Republican establishment. But Brat may owe his victory more to voter apathy than the Tea Party.
Brat beat Cantor with just 36,110 votes, or roughly 4 percent of the district’s 925,481 active registered voters. Conventional wisdom says voters simply don’t turn out for midterm primary elections. And when the voting pool is small, extremists have a much bigger influence.
For example, the 2010 elections, when Republicans took control of the House buoyed by Tea Party fervor, had the second-lowest turnout in U.S. history.
“A larger problem is that miniscule turnout in primaries feeds political polarization and extremism. The rise of the Tea Party movement was aided by a GOP primary electorate in which militant conservatives were over-represented,” Walter Shapiro of the Brennan Center for Justice explains. “Rand Paul, for example, won his 2010 Kentucky Senate primary with little more than one quarter of the votes that he received in the 2010 general election. In Texas in 2012, Ted Cruz won seven times as many votes in the November election as he did in upsetting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the Senate primary.”
This trend seems to be holding. Thus far this year, far right-wing candidates have won GOP nominations all over the country with just a handful of votes. Joni Ernst, the U.S. Senate nominee in Iowa now infamous for her ad boasting about her experience castrating hogs, won in an election where just 158,031 votes were cast — about 72,000 less than in 2010. Tea Party favorite Monica Wehby won the GOP nomination in Oregon with 134,400 votes, about 20 percent of registered Republicans, in an election with exceedingly low turnout. And Thad Cochran (R-MI) looks doomed to lose his seat to Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel after roughly 300,000 voters cast ballots out of a voting-age population north of 2 million.
The turnout stakes stand to be even more dire in the general election. A new report finds that Democratic voters are the least likely to vote in midterm elections, while Republicans and conservatives are “absolutely certain” to vote this year. Young people and minorities are especially likely to stay home this year. If the get out the vote efforts stay weak, 2014 may usher in another wave of right-wing extremists in Congress.